A near miss and or a missed opportunity?

If there is anything that we can say with confidence about “Growing Up Online”, it has generated a fair amount of discussion about the role of technology and the Internet in children’s lives. As the catalytic effect of social networking on the adolescent experience is under the light of public scrutiny for the next news cycle, we can rest assured that the nature of the discussion has changed. 

Reactions are understandably mixed. Some express disappointment that the surface of a complex subject was skimmed, leaving unanswered the deeper questions about our culture yet still accenting just enough fear to grab viewers.  Others, me included, are pleased that views like those of Danah Boyd and Anne Collier have made it to the popular media.  There could have been much more fear mongering, much more parroting of the Luddite call to parents to throw their children’s computers out like Beatles records in 1966. We didn’t hear that.

Though to tell the truth, I expected to see a documentary on the role of technology on education.  That was what I talked about through three conversations with the film-makers and the hour–long recorded interview.  But in the end the subject of education was whittled down to cheating and entertainment, just a couple minutes in the entire program. 

That’s fair of course, the film had a different focus, and education was just along for the ride.  And they did include transcripts of the interviews on the companion site.  Yet to those of us absorbed with education, those of us convinced it is the most ignored national security threat facing our country, those of us who have found our lives and learning transformed by new tools of communication and information, those of us who feel lucky to watch humanity go through the initial stages of the greatest change it has ever experienced, those of us who teach, were left wanting more.

We do have this one consolation; we have our own media and marketplace of ideas as well.  As I watched the story grow over the weekend and overflow in my aggregator, I marveled at the way church groups, mother’s clubs, and teachers told each other to watch and then discussed it afterwards.  Were they talking about the role of technology in education this way last week? What remains to be seen though is how the discussion generated by this program will be taken up by the education community as a whole.  How will individual teachers, administrators and dare I say, state legislators, join this conversation? 

Maybe throwing cheating and entertaining into the mix causes just enough spark to get more people involved.  As this issue evolves, those of us who think we see the true potential and need to change are going to have to work harder than ever.  Technology not only changes the “how” we teach, it also changes the “what” we teach.  And it’s not going to be easy to convince people that memorizing US history is not learning US history. 

John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems has impeccable timing.  In a column from Forbes he writes “Technology hasn’t simply changed the way we obtain and share information; it has changed the very nature of what we need to know in order to be effective.”….”we are going to have to have the courage to break patterns and approach this in an entirely different way. We might even need to explore some things that make us uncomfortable.”

Let’s hope this first step into a national conversation about technology in education starts that exploration.

Under Construction: Here we go again

Just as the hardware buying binge of the late 90s quickly brought tons of equipment into schools, the learning environment building craze of the late 00s will bring a flurry of excitement and activity to school districts across the country. Remember how computers were rolled into rooms before the networks were built? Remember how professional development wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of administrators who were only too proud to boast of their student/computer ratios? It didn’t matter that the pedagogy wasn’t there, it didn’t matter that the bandwidth wasn’t there, it didn’t even matter that the teachers did not know the difference between stopping their vcrs from blinking “12:00” and setting a default printer; the public thought computers were good and the schools got computers. We’re done, right?

As much as we can hope that we’ve learned from our past, we have to realize that this is public education and most school districts across the country will probably fall into this trap again. Since the public wants school and teacher web sites and homework assignments posted online, the school districts will provide it to them without any planning, foresight or concern for real learning. Those same administrator chests will puff out again at PTA and school board meetings, “did you see our school’s web site?”

Well if you did, you would find three teachers out of 70 who actually have anything on their section of the site. You would find a basic template that tells you and your children as much about the personality of their teacher and the class as a hallmark card tells you the true emotion of the sender. You would find that the calendar hasn’t been updated since August. The basic shell of the site will look fine, but as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there, there”.

Yes, there are many exceptions to this rule, but that misses the point as well.

School web sites are web 1.0, one-way streets of information dissemination, there is no interaction between administrators, teachers, students and the community. Just as the hardware payoff was not realized by rolling a machine into a classroom, the school web presence payoff will not be realized until learning environments are built.

And there’s the rub.

Perhaps the only significant decision in the hardware binge was platform. After deciding on Windows or Macs, the only thing left to do was sign the check.

This step is not so easy. There is a overflowing font of learning environments. There are free tools like blogs, wikis and Moodle and a host of corporate products, eager to cash in on the ignorance of decisions makers who do not trust and do not know much about the open source alternative.

Administrators and decision makers are excited by these tools and have a sense of how they can be used in classroom, but they do not really have the sort of working-level experience necessary to make important decisions regarding how the environments should be constructed. Teachers are also excited, but need a much more immersive professional development experience to tinker with them in order to figure out exactly how they can be applied to their particular classes. And to complete the triangle, the IT folks have little sense of what goes on in the classroom or the day-to-day work of teachers.

At some point, school districts will decide what sort of the learning environment they will make available to their students and how that environment is connected to their local community and the outside world.

The architecture of these learning environments is as important as the architecture of the buildings themselves. How many buildings do we have? What do they look like? Who is allowed to work in them and who do we allow to tour our facility?

Those questions are easy for us when we are physically constructing an addition to a school because everyone has a complete working knowledge of how those physical buildings work. But few people have spent time in the type of “buildings” we are talking about. Until administrators and teachers communicate and collaborate in these environments, they will be ill-equipped to design them. Although they could easily navigate “Windows or Mac”, do they know the difference between a blog, wiki or forum?

Here we go again.

Breaker One-Nine

Back in the mid-seventies, my sister introduced our family to the CB radio(citizens band) craze.  Rushing into the house one afternoon, she frothed about how cool it was to talk to truckers on the nearby NJ Turnpike.  Cruising around with her high school friends, an older boy taught her the tips and tricks of talking on the radio.  But he took advantage of her ignorance and had a blast by helping her come up with a “handle” (name).  It must have been amazing to see the wave of responses the spritely young “Eager Beaver” got when she called out “Breaker One-Nine.”

Although their shared qualities of social networking and citizen media draw parallels between CB radio and Web 2.0, it’s their distinct vocabulary which piques my interest.  It may have been easy to “put the hammer down” while looking “over your donkey” for “smokies” on the “green stamps”, it may not be easy to “fill your aggregator” with “feeds” while “Trackbacking” by “pinging”.  Any teacher interested in explaining their excitement and success with educational technology has a huge hurdle to jump, the goofy language of Web 2.0.

How does one say “Moodle” with a straight face?  Does it help to say it stands for “modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment”.  And what do you do with “Diigo”, “Spurl” and “ELGG”?  And although “blog”, “wiki” and “podcasting” now enjoy a certain familiarity among most people, how many can the difference between them? 

At least everyone know what “Google” is, but that took ten years, a market capitalization in excess of $200 billion and an entry in the dictionary.

The slang of the CB was part of its allure, no newspaper article fueling the hype was without an inset box prominent examples.  Even Betty Ford (the “first mama”) could get a CB dictionary and sound like a gearjammer.  But this was only a fad that sat in between the pet rock and roller disco, it was not serious education. 

Can we fault people for laughing at our “tweets”?

The Answer Machine (1969)

During my last visit to my parents, I spent some time thumbing through some of my once-treasured Childraft’s “How and Library” volumes. After a feeble and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to share with my oldest son the same spark of interest I felt as a nine-year old when exposed to this encyclopedia just for kids, I came across an article about “The Answer Machine”. Continue reading

CIPA-Size Me!

At our more productive than usual technology committee meeting Tuesday afternoon we once again addressed the issue of filtering. Most video hosting sites, such as YouTube and ifilm, are blocked and those of us in Social Studies lament the fact that we are denied the endless supply of relevant news clips that could be used on any given day. Last year we gave up replacing textbooks to use our budget to equip every classroom with a projector. We have everything we need to use the material on the internet, except the permission to use it. The content is there on one side of the ethernet and our projector is on the other. In-between stands the tyranny of the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Continue reading